JMU Alumni Association's

2011 Distinguished Teacher Award Recipient

Donna Honeywell and Crystal Smith

I am a teacher. This is the answer I give when someone new asks me to explain my career. Of course, the follow up question is, what do you teach? I know the answer they are looking for is math, but that is rarely the answer I want to give them. I teach children. Those people who function outside of the world of education see this as an obvious response. In reality, that simple idea drives me everyday. Mathematics is important and is the subject I have chosen to present in my classroom everyday. However, it is the relationships I build with my students that drives my daily activities and makes me the teacher I am today.

Every student is capable of learning and has the right to learn. As an educator, it is my job to cater my lessons to the learning styles of each student. In my opinion, this is an impossible task without knowing a little bit about each student's home life, likes and dislikes, personality triggers, and strengths and weaknesses. This fact became clear to me in eleventh grade, when I was a student in a Math Analysis class. I had a wonderful teacher who did an excellent job presenting the material to me in a way that I easily understood. Several of my peers did not feel the same way. I spent the majority of that school year tutoring some of my classmates. When I was helping them, I looked for signs of frustration. I knew when they had something else on their minds because I knew them well. I realized that I certainly did not know the material better than my teacher. However, I did know my classmates better than she did. I enjoyed witnessing my classmates succeed and it was rewarding to think that I somehow had a small part in that. I credit that experience with my decision to become an educator.

In my classroom, I work to create a positive, friendly learning environment where students feel comfortable trying new things and asking questions. Students can be seen working at the SMART board or assisting each other at their seats. In my Math 8 class, I am lucky to have a math coach working with the students in my classroom three days a week in addition to an instructional aide, who is present daily. Occasionally we will break the classroom into three small groups so that each adult reviews a difficult concept with the students. The groups are created based on benchmark data, observations and assessments completed in the classroom, and relationships among the students. I also encourage the students to visit me during their lunch period for extra help and remediation. I strongly believe that the best way to meet a student's needs is to work with them one-on-one.

Students need to feel involved in their learning. When planning my lessons, I try to incorporate choices for the students so that they feel like they have some control over their education. During whole group instruction, we often play math tag, which involves a student completing one step of a problem at the board and then choosing another student to complete the next step. If a student is chosen that feels unsure about the math concept we are working on, the student is allowed to get help from the class on the problem. As a result, the majority of the class has been actively involved in the lesson without me calling on anyone. We also complete flex folder assignments, which is a self-paced project that is due at the end of the grading period. Each student is given a menu of activities, often created for that student based on benchmark data. All of the activities review material covered earlier in the school year. The students are required to complete a certain number of activities by the due date. With the exception of a few assignments, the students are allowed to choose the activities from the menu they would like to complete and the order in which the assignments are completed. Since math can be intimidating for many of my students, I also like to offer a weekly enrichment activity that is completely optional. The activity is called the “Problem of the Week”. Any student that completes the “Problem of the Week” correctly receives a small prize. If a student gets the “Problem of the Week” incorrect, there are no negative consequences. I find it very exciting to see students who are usually fearful of math attempt the “Problem of the Week”, especially when they get the problem correct.

In my classes, I cater the assessments and activities to each student as much as possible. In some of my classes, the students take a weekly “Check Up”. The “Check Up” consists of five questions that focus on skills that have been a struggle for each particular student. A student's “Check Up” is reviewed with him or her weekly. By creating the assignment to meet each student's needs, I hope the constant exposure to challenging questions will turn the student's weaknesses into strengths. In years past, I have also created lunch study groups for students who are struggling with similar skills. The study groups usually contain no more than eight students and meet once a week. Although the students can be resistant to spending their lunch period working on math with their teacher, most students have found it helpful and enjoy spending time with students who are having trouble with similar concepts.

Although I teach the same material every year, my eight years at Christiansburg Middle School have never been boring. Each group of new students brings new rewards and new challenges. In order to keep my students engaged and to make sure I'm focused on their needs, I'm constantly trying new things. As an educator, each school year is a learning experience for me. Every year is a fresh start.